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California Indian Languages
California Indian Languages
Victor Golla
University of California Press, 2011
400 pp., $99.95

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John H. McWhorter


Awesomely Alternate Randomnesses

What we learn from California Indian languages.

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Rather, languages randomly mark some things more than others. Call California Native Americans fascinatingly connected to space and direction, but then be prepared to call them blind to the difference between the hill versus just a hill—most Native American languages leave that particular distinction largely to context. We assume Native Americans felt that nuance as deeply as we do even if their grammars do not happen to explicitly mark it with words or suffixes. Just as obviously, for Yokuts to have almost no regular verbs says nothing about how its speakers process existence.

Dying languages should be documented not as psychological templates but as awesomely alternate randomnesses from what European languages happen to be. Golla's book is valuable also, then, in its diligent chronicle of the researchers over the centuries who have dedicated themselves to the task of simply getting on paper how these languages work. One of the most resonant photos in the book—from almost a hundred years ago—is of founding California language scholar Alfred Kroeber, longtime anthropology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who got down the basic structure of dozens of California languages during his career. The snapshot, unusually for an era in which smiling for photographs was not yet common coin, captures a man grinning in the great outdoors—a man who clearly relished his mission.

And quite a mission it was. A language is a markedly huge business. First there is the basic grammatical machinery of the kind described above—but then there are the wrinkles. In English, we say one fish, two fish, okay—so fish is irregular: no two fishes. But then what about the Catholic Feast of the Seven Fishes? Try explaining that to a foreigner—such as to a Japanese one I know who also, despite her very good English, mentioned an obese man whose "meat" was hanging over the edges of a chair. We natives would say "flesh"—but why? "Meat" makes perfect sense: that we happen to prefer to say "flesh" or "flab" is just serendipity. You can say I'm frying some eggs, or I'm frying up some eggs. They don't mean the same thing—note that the version with up implies that the eggs will be ready for you to eat soon. But if you were teaching someone English, how likely would you be to get to that nuance?

To speak a language in full is to have full control over little things like that, and it's the rare outsider whose grammatical research can get down to details this fine. Even when well documented with a grammatical description and a dictionary, a great deal of what a language was has still been lost, just as a cat's skeleton cannot tell us that cats hold their tails in the air and curl up when they sleep.

For reasons of this kind, some insist that all efforts be made to keep such languages actually spoken, as "living things" rather than archival displays. However, Golla's book gives ample coverage to revival efforts, and the sad fact is that there is not a single report of a language that was once dying but has now been successfully passed on to a new generation. For all but a few lucky cases where happenstance has kept the language alive to the present day, documentation may be the best we can do.

In this light something bears mentioning that linguists traditionally step around. It is often implied that a great diversity of languages being spoken in the world is beneficial in the same way that genetic diversity is within a population. This, however, is more stated than demonstrated. If there had only ever been one language among all of the world's peoples, and all people could converse wherever they went, how commonly would people have regretted that there weren't thousands of mutually unintelligible languages? All humans could converse—who would have deemed that a disadvantage? Or, who would have said that it would be better if all humans had some other language alongside the universal one that only some people knew?

That is, amidst the downsides of language loss—including that most of those that die will be the smaller, indigenous ones—there are some benefits to there being fewer. A statement like that is understandably difficult to embrace for people watching generations of their own people grow up without something as central to cultural identity as their own language, as well as for scholars and activists who are equally dismayed at same. However, at least we have the technology to get on record a good deal of what the lost languages were like, and California Indian Languages is a perfect introduction to this record as it currently exists for 78 vastly different ways of talking.

John H. McWhorter teaches at Columbia University and is a contributing editor of The New Republic. He is the author most recently of What Language Is (Gotham).

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